Queens Chronicle BSA reform bills before City Council by Ryan Brady
Sick of the Board of Standards and Appeals approving projects contrary to their wishes, members of Queens civic associations are highly supportive of a 10-bill package before the City Council to make the agency more transparent.
A hearing on the bills, some of which were introduced by Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) this month and others of which were introduced before, was held on Dec. 14.
Some of the measures that stand out include a bill that would create a $25,000 fine for lying on an application; one that would require the agency to reference arguments made by community and borough boards and the City Planning Commission in its decisions; and another that would mandate the creation of a map showing locations where variances and special permits have been granted.
One of the proposed laws, which was introduced by Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) two years ago, would require the agency — whose commissioners are appointed by the mayor — to provide an explanation when it votes against the recommendations made by a community or borough board.
“Well a lot of times they don’t listen to us,” Koslowitz told the Chronicle. “They do what they want to do and you know nobody knows the neighborhood more than the community board, the borough president and the council member.”
Earlier this year, for example, the BSA approved a mosque in Flushing that violated a litany of area zoning ordinances and was opposed by the Kissena Park Civic Association, Community Board 7 and elected officials for the area.
“The issue with the community center is that they were going to be in egregious violation of major building code laws,” KPCA Vice President Carsten Glaeser told the Chronicle. “And the BSA in the end ruled that it’s OK if they violate these laws.”
Variances for floor area ratio, parking and other building components were sought and approved with members of the civic association testifying about these issues and their belief the site is too small for its planned use before the BSA and feeling that the agency ignored their remarks.
Throughout Queens, other civic associations have had similar problems with the agency.
“We used to call them the ‘board of rubber stamps and appeals’ because they would rubber stamp things,” Juniper Park Civic Association President Bob Holden said. “They really need to actually listen to the community and they don’t by and large.”
“Quite often, communities have a different point of view,” Community Board 13 District Manager Mark McMillan said. “Before you know it, you get a development that the community’s against.”
Auburndale Improvement Association First Vice President Henry Euler testified at the recent hearing for the bills, all of which he supports.
“It’s gonna take a while before these bills are passed, but all the councilmen that came to the hearing, they seemed very much in favor of these bills,” Euler said.
Queens Civic Congress Executive Vice President Kevin Forrestal also testified at the hearing. He supports the bills’ intents, though says that some of the details would maybe be better changed.
He would broaden the scope of the $25,000 fine, for one thing.
“The penalty should apply not just to the applicant but to the attorney or the architect,” he said.
Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Koslowitz support the legislation to create the interactive map.
Another bill would require the hiring of a Department of City Planning coordinator for the BSA.
Claims of financial hardship from applicants would have to meet minimum requirements that would be codified, as would those of a zoning lot’s physical uniqueness, if the measure which creates a $25,000 fine for lying applicants is passed.
Another piece of legislation would require the agency’s executive director to appoint a state-certified general appraiser skilled in auditing and examining investments in real estate.
Van Bramer introduced the bill to change how the BSA weighs community input, requiring the agency to refer to arguments presented to it — which are given by borough boards, community boards and the City Planning Commission — in its decisions.
Another bill would mandate the BSA to notify variance holders six months in advance of their variance’s expiration. If they continue to use the lot for six months after that date, they would be subject to a $500 penalty that is incurred again if another six-month period passes.
The 30-day period in which BSA decisions can be appealed in court would be extended to four months if one of the bills is passed.
Another proposed law, introduced by Richards, would require the agency to notify Council members when it receives an application for a location in their district.
Kallos, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, also introduced legislation to make the agency publish a detailed annual report about its permit and variance decisions. The report would have to state the length of time between the filing of an application and when a decision on it is reached, how many appeals are granted and other relevant information.
Not everyone supports the bills.
New York City Zoning Advisory Council President Sheldon Lobel, a land-use attorney who has worked on BSA applications for decades, voiced criticism of some of them at the hearing.
Lobel disputes the claim that the agency rubber-stamps applications — despite a 2012 analysis from the good government group Citizens Union that found the BSA decided as the applicant wished in 97 percent of a set of 108 cases, a portion of which were opposed by community boards. Lobel mentioned how in pre-application meetings with the board’s chairperson, a requested variance can be dismissed so that filing an application is a non-starter.
“Right then, she says, ‘I don’t see it’ or ‘I see it,’” Lobel said, adding that many would-be cases do not come to the BSA for that reason.
Lobel added that the proposed $25,000 penalty would discourage applicants who cannot handle such a loss from filing with the BSA at all. “Then no one’ll be able to go for a variance,” he said.
As not everyone with a case before the agency is a wealthy developer — religious facilities and community centers also sometimes need variances — some ordinary people could be hurt by some of the bills penalties, Lobel explained.
The land-use lawyer is not opposed to the whole legislative package, however, citing the bill that would create a map of sites as a harmless one.
“I’m not against all of them,” he said. “I’m just against those that would create more difficulties for the small business owners, the small property owners, churches and synagogues.”
BSA Executive Director Ryan Singer expressed an openness to the legislation.
“The Board welcomes the efforts to increase transparency and rigour, both efforts are in line with the goals of Chair [Marjorie] Perlmutter,” he said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to work with the City Council to achieve our shared goals within the constraints of our legal framework and budget.”